Philip Glass fell asleep in the middle of the pitch that actor and director Phelim McDermott was making for a theater piece the two could create together. “I’ve bored Philip Glass McDermott says, sounding amazed. “The man who’s put more people to sleep in concert halls across the world than any other composer… and I’ve put him to sleep!”
And right there is a prime example of how McDermott tricks us in “Tao of Glass” into enjoying a show that spends 150 minutes devoted to Philip Glass, much of it with a quartet of musicians performing his endlessly circular music, but also a player piano and a record on an old-fashioned record player placed in the vast stage at NYU Skirball.
It’s utterly disarming for McDermott to admit out loud that so many people are bored by the 86-year-old composer whom he himself has idolized for decades. But it’s just one of the many sly ways he wins us over. No trick is too far-fetched — Eastern philosophy (Tao Te Ching), puppets, weird costumes, lying flat on the stage pretending to be in a coma, and general theatrical mayhem, but above all the personal stories McDermott tells, charming, amusing, confessional.
There’s the story of “Billy’s Wonderful Kettle,” which was (he realized much later) a British version of Aladdin; when he was a seven-year-old child growing up in Manchester, England, he was so excited to see the show that he made himself sick with anticipation – too sick to attend; the absence has haunted him ever since; perhaps helped shape his artistic sensibility.
There’s the story of the time he visited the children’s book writer Maurice Sendak, with the plan to get his permission to adapt his book “In The Night Kitchen” (“his house is like a grotto, full of wind-up toys. Mickey Mouses, puppets, old comic books… “Little Nemo in Slumberland” and his drawings everywhere.
There is the story of how he used the money he earned from “this Broadway show I got sacked from” (no details forthcoming) to buy an absurdly expensive glass coffee table – and while, renovating his garage into a studio, the workmen smashed it into a hundred pieces – a story he manages to milk effectively for both humor and deeper meaning.
And yes, there are stories about Philip Glass – how as a college student he bought his first Glass album, Glassworks, and became obsessed with it, and drove his parents crazy when he listened to it ceaselessly on his visits home; how he was leaving Coliseum Theatre in London, where he bought his first-ever ticket to an opera (by Philip Glass), when he spotted Glass walking on the street, and surreptitiously stalked him into the older man entered a sushi restaurant (“Philip Glass eats sushi!”)
After many fits and starts, he and Philip Glass do end up working together, and he quotes some of the things Glass said to him: “I used to think that music was a place. Like New York or Chicago or Manchester Now I think it’s a river that always there and you can return to it.”
Eventually, I realize that “Tao of Glass” is not just about Philip Glass. It’s about how music and theater not only help you deal with life – which, let’s face it, is almost synonymous with a life of disappointment – but get to life’s essence.
Tao of Glass ends today at NYU Skirball.